The Time-lapse Photography How to Guide - Learn Time-lapse Photography
The Time-lapse Photography How to Guide
Hello and welcome to the time-lapse photography how-to guide, an evolving road-map for the evolving art of altered time perception cinematography. This page attempts to weave together separately covered tutorials, tips, and resources into one location that can hopefully act as a launching pad for your own time-lapse experiments and productions.
Time discovers truth. -Seneca
We’ve come a long way since Occident’s hooves left the ground but time-lapse still requires patience, dedication, and some special tools and know-how in order to get the scene we design in our minds to show up on screen. The community of time-lapse enthusiasts that exist online are an invaluable resource and I encourage you to get involved and share your results wherever you can.
Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as bad as you might think. If you’ve already been taking photographs with a DSLR then chances are you have most of what you need. Digital photographers love their gear but here’s a barebones checklist to get you up and running:
Stability (or controlled movement) is the most essential component for a time-lapse photographer. I even listed this before a camera. A heavy sturdy quality tripod is an absolute must. Sometimes older used models (back when things were made of real materials) can be an inexpensive gold mine (check craigslist). If you do buy new, it pays to do it right once rather then regret and re-buy later.
What makes a good time-lapse camera? Well…, talk about a loaded question. DSLR cameras have several advantages and are the focus of this site, but chances are if it can take a picture then there’s probably a way to make a time-lapse. For those of you who do not yet have a camera you may want to consider these questions before buying one.
The goal is accurate and reliable automatic shutter triggering, that’s what an intervalometer does and if you don’t have one built into your camera already there are several different kinds to consider:
I have broken the external intervalometer world down into 4 segments.
Advanced (expensive but sometimes offer more features)
Home-built and DIY (Some are hard to make and lack features and field reliability, but they are just downright cool)
Neutral Density (ND) Filters
Essentially sunglasses for your lens, ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera without altering it’s color. ND filters allow slower shutter speeds and come in handy when we want to create motion blur by dragging our shutter. Motion blur and shutter dragging are discussed inside this explanation of time-lapse exposure.
Don’t just approach a scene, set down your tripod and begin shooting because guess what?
You’ll end up with a shot just like everyone else’s.
It pays to take your time, look around, and pay extra attention to your composition. As a time-lapse photographer we have an incredible creative tool that few other photographers have, and that’s change. Try to anticipate how your scene will change over time and what composition best captures this change.
Do you want to limit focus?
How do the edges of the composition look?
What about your foreground?
Are you following the rule of thirds?
Lock down your tripod and camera
Stability is absolutely key. Here are a few tips to promote a wobble free compilation.
Don’t extend your tripod all the way and use the thicker legs first.
Avoid extending the vertical center rod unless you absolutely have to.
Hang a heavy bag of rocks or gear from the center of the tripod to really press it into the ground
Consider making or buying a few bean bags to use as weight and to set on-top of your camera
Going the extra yard for stability now, instead of trying to correct (or have to throw away) a shaky time-lapse later, is worth it.
Select a Time-lapse Interval
The interval you select (in relation to the movement that is taking place in front of you) controls how fast the scene appears in the final compilation video. Learn exactly how to do it in this article: how to select a time-lapse interval.
No two scenes are exactly alike, but these common intervals may give you a head start:
Fast moving clouds
1 – 3 seconds
Slower moving clouds
Moon and sun near horizon (or telephoto)
Things photographed with a telephoto
15 – 30 seconds
Sun across sky (no clouds) (wide)
Stars (15 – 60 seconds)
Fast growing plants (ex vines) (90 – 120 seconds)
Construction projects (5min – 15min)
Interval must be longer than exposure
Wikipedia CC license
Frame interval > Exposure time
Your interval MUST exceed your exposure time. A good rule of thumb is to keep your exposure at about 60% – 80% of your interval to give your camera enough time to clear the image buffer before the next frame is taken.
Avoid dropped frames
Think of your camera’s buffer like a pipe connecting the newly recorded image and you camera’s memory card. It takes a little bit of time (depending on your image resolution) for the information to be processed and flow from one place to the other. If you try to send images too quickly some may get lost (your camera will skip a frame). Bad news. I’ll be explaining the concept of camera buffer “dropped frames” in greater detail in a separate post, but for now make sure your camera’s “read/write” light is off before the next frame is taken.
Setting Your Exposure
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. - Henri Cartier-Bresson
I think there is a lot of truth to that statement but the good news is with time-lapse photography you’ll breeze through your first 10k photos in no time. I’m kidding. Well, sorta. Ok maybe not breeze, but “drag” through for sure ok, i’ll stop I promise.
Now it’s ok if you are a little rusty on manual camera control. There are a ton of great online resources and books written and designed by some amazing photographers out there. I am always learning something new. As a refresher to how photographic controls work together to create an exposure, take a look at the time-lapse exposure triangle below.
Time-lapse exposure triangle
If you are looking for more information on photography and exposure fundamentals here are a few resources to check out:
It’s the bane of many a time-lapse photographer. What starts to look like a good time-lapse video is suddenly spattered with some images that look brighter or dimmer than the others making your film appear to “flicker” or “strobe” a few times a second. Take a look at this example below:
Photographed in automatic (green) mode at a 1 second interval.
If you have relatively constant light, shoot in MANUAL mode
Since there wont be too much light change in your scene eliminating the camera’s automatic light metering will greatly reduce the occurrence of time-lapse flicker. If you haven’t read shooting in manual mode yet, I encourage you to do so.
If your light will change consider shooting in APERTURE PRIORITY mode
Manual mode might quickly over or under expose your image as the scene changes. For example if you set your exposure manually for a low light sunrise scene, as the view gets brighter your image will be quickly overexposed. Shoot in Aperture priority mode (Av mode on your camera dial) instead. Set your aperture and allow the camera to select the corresponding shutter speed for the desired exposure. Over time the camera will meter the changing light in your scene and adjust shutter speed automatically.
You will encounter more flicker but deflickering software in post production goes a long way to correct a majority of any issues.
If you decide to shoot time-lapse in automatic mode of any kind, make sure you cover your camera eyepiece. Stray light can enter and affect camera metering.
Create motion blur by dragging your shutter
In still photography a fast shutter speed and minimal (or no) motion blur is usually the goal, but because time-lapse photography involves the blending of many still frames to create a moving sequence, we can utilize slower shutter speeds and motion blurring to create a smoother looking time-lapse compilation. Here’s how it works:
Dragging shutter example video
Motion blur occurs when the image being photographed changes slightly during its exposure. This “change” or motion is captured in the form of a slight blur. Think of this blur as extra information about what is happening within the scene . Since these images are played back-to-back in a compilation (or video), we see an added smoothness to the entire sequence.
Read more about shutter dragging here. You might also want to take a look at the exposure tutorial video where a dragged shutter time-lapse is compared side-by-side to one without dragging. The link is queued up to the spot.
Select an ISO setting
When shooting in manual mode DON’T FORGET to set your ISO to a specific value and remove it from automatic control. Keeping a low ISO setting will result in less photographic noise but will require a brighter scene. A higher ISO results in a sensor that is more sensitive to lower light situations but, it also subjects your final images to more random noise. Here’s a much more detailed ISO explanation with great examples.
White balance and file format
Selecting a white balance is very important if you are recording your images in the JPEG file format. White balance, or what your camera uses to determine the correct color temperature of the scene you are photographing, can create some pretty scary color casts if it is not selected properly.
I’ll defer to more expert explanations to foster a more solid understanding (this white balance tutorial is outstanding) but the best way to achieve the results you want is to shoot in the RAW file format. Shooting in RAW allows you to correct after the photo has been taken and gives you much more control than what might be available in your cameras menu options.
Select manual focus
You’ll want to hit the switch for manual focus for most time-lapse projects. I usually lock a good focus using autofocus then swtch it to manual mode before I begin shooting.
A good tip to ensure proper focus is to take a test photo, view it, and zoom into different parts and check. Alternatively you can switch your camera into live view and zoom into your image allowing you to manually adjust your focus until the image looks good.
Don’t worry, you’ll get better
All this information may seem like a bit of an overload but I assure you as you get some tests under your belt and you take your time to think time-lapse it becomes intuitive.
Think about what is changing in your scene, and how will your camera settings capture that change? Ask yourself, am I allowing any aspects of the exposure to be controlled by my cameras automatic light meter, and if so how is that likely to affect my images when I compile them together?
A Man’s errors are his portals of discovery. – James Joyce
Putting it all together
Now that you’ve got a boatload of images I’m going to suggest your throw a few away, well maybe the first one or two. Sometimes when you start your time-lapse recording you may have touched the camera or tripod somewhere so to be sure there is no movement throw one away.
Compiling the images
Here is a list of applications that can work to stitch together your time-lapse compilation. Screen capture tutorials would be the best way to show and explore the how-to process and I should have some available on these applications soon. I have not used everything yet and I primarily use Adobe After Effects CS5.
LRTimelapse (Free, but need Adobe Lightroom or Camera Raw to use)
Got some flicker? It’s ok, well sorta. There are several options available to “deflicker” your time-lapse compilation during post production and most of them work quite well. I have the most experience using GBDeflicker a plugin for Adobe application and also a stand alone Windows application. I will be providing a tutorial on how to use this soon as well as other methods for a greater range of budgets and computer types.
A final note
Never let the time-lapse take the fun out of a scene
I’ll admit it. I’ve stepped outside, looked at the incredible shape and movement and color of the clouds as the evening sunset nears, run back inside, grabbed my gear, sped off to the shore, got everything setup and programmed, only to miss it all as the sun had already set and the clouds have moved by.
I’ve driven to locations and lugged gear down trails only to have forgotten my camera’s memory card or a tripod release plate.
I’ve stayed up until 4:30 am testing astrophotography time-lapse settings only to really botch it all and have nothing usable.
Plan as best you can, make adjustments in the field, then just shoot it.
Compile, critique, and ask questions.
Read some stuff.
Experience shooting time-lapse will be your best guide.
Everyone here is learning.
Always enjoy and respect the property and scene in front of you. Many time-lapse compilation involve scenes of beauty in nature. With your help we can help preserve and protect these views for others. A few bad apples could stop all future photographers from enjoying a scene or unique vantage point.
Share what you learn
We are learning new things all the time and we need your help.
Thank you for reading. I hope this has been helpful and can speed you along on your path to incredible time-lapse compilations.